Should Christians Obey Government?
A Rocky Relationship
The relationship between Church and State has always been a bit strained. Let's face it, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was crucified by the Romans, the supreme power of that day. And all the way up to this present time, over 2000 years later, there are thousands every year being persecuted or martyred for their faith somewhere in this world.
And, unfortunately, when Christians have had control they haven't done much better. The persecuted became the persecutors. At times the Church's treatment of dissenters was downright pagan.
With all of this in mind, what is the responsibility that Christians have to the government? May believers participate in this institution? Is it the duty of some to run for office? Must we obey its laws? And how about laws that contradict the Bible?
Believe it or not, the Scriptures have much to say about government and its role in our lives. And we need to heed what God tells us. Let us examine the biblical view of this important subject.
I. Government is Ordained by God
To start with, we can trace the beginning of human government all the way back to the book of Genesis when Noah and his sons and their families leave the Ark in Genesis 8 and 9. During that time God gave Noah a set of rules or expectations to follow which established the right of man to have authority over other men. A very important command in chapter 9 is found in verse 6. God says:
"Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in his own image."
In this verse, God establishes the sanctity of human life and, at the same time, gives to man the ability to perform capital punishment for murdering the image of God.
This idea is fleshed out by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13 when talking about the role of government and how the Christian should view it. He tells us this:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed" (Romans 13:1-7).
The Apostle Peter agrees with Paul in his writings. He tells us:
"Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king" (I Peter 2:13,14).
For those looking to the Bible for a reason for anarchy, they won't find it. As a matter of fact, it teaches just the opposite. With at least one exception which will be discussed later, those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ should be the most law-abiding citizens that a government has.
If we understand what the Bible teaches, we see that the government has at least three major functions in our sin-cursed world that God has ordained them to carry out.
1. Protects the Citizens
Unfortunately, we are living in a world where sin and sinners abound. And because of that, we have evil people who wish to take advantage of us and hurt us. For that, we need the iron fist of government that will crack down on evildoers and come to our rescue. It wields the sword and avenges those who have been hurt (Romans 13:4).
We see an example of this in Acts 21:27-37 where the Roman government has to step in and save Paul from the hands of his own countrymen who sought to kill him in Jerusalem.
2. Punishes the Evildoers
Our God hates injustice and will one day see that all of it is righted Himself. In the meantime, He has placed the government on this earth to begin the process by making sure that sins against humanity are punished. Obviously, those in charge of justice are not perfect like our Lord and some will actually get away with evil in this life. However, the Lord has placed armies, lawmakers, police, courts and other justice officials on this earth to do all they can to see that evildoers are punished for their crimes (I Peter 2:13,14).
It would indeed be a horrible world to live in if there were no law enforcement. Anarchy would take place and everyone would do what was right in their own eyes. It is by the grace of God that there are people willing to serve in such difficult jobs.
3. Promotes the General Welfare
The government promotes the general welfare of its citizens and helps them to live as good a life as possible. It looks out for citizens to make sure they are protected and sees to it that they are free to live the life God intended. The Apostle Paul told Timothy that we are to pray for those in authority to help us lead better lives. He says this:
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (I Timothy 2:1,2).
A good government then is not a threat to holy people but one that allows us to do what God wills with our lives.
II. Jesus Sanctioned Government
There were many who followed Jesus during his ministry here on earth who were his followers simply because they thought He was going to be the one who would finally overthrow what they believed to be the oppressive Roman government of His day and to set up a kingdom on earth that would bring back the glory that once belonged to God's people Israel. They were called Zealots and wished for the violent overthrow of Rome.
If we believe Jesus is Lord then we know that one day He will indeed take over, not just this world, but the whole universe. However, in His first visit to earth, His major job was to first change the hearts of mankind by saving the world from sin and the grave through His death, burial, and resurrection.
However, in the day in which He lived, our Lord recognized the God-given authority of Rome. We find that in Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:19-26 that He was tested by Pharisees and Herodians, who were Jewish leaders, in order to trap Him. They asked: "Is it lawful to pay a poll tax to Caesar or not?"
This tax that was in question was an annual tax that each person had to pay which added to the already heavy taxes Rome exacted. The people didn't like this one even more than the rest because it suggested that Rome claimed to own the people when they considered themselves possessions of God.
If Jesus had answered no to the question, then He'd be in trouble with Rome for treason. If he answered yes, the Jewish leaders could have accused Him of disloyalty to the Jewish nation and also supporting a government who claimed that Caesar was God.
Jesus recognized that they were trying to trick him and told them so. Then He told them to get Him a denarius and asked them whose likeness and superscription was on it. They told Him that it was Caesars'. Then Jesus replied something extremely clever and unexpected. He said:
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17).
In doing this Jesus commanded that His followers were to recognize both the earthly authorities given to us by God and the Heavenly authority who is God the Father.
When to Disobey
III. God's People Were Part of Government
It is interesting that if you look at the Bible, you see that God's people, at times played an important role in the government of their day. The good Kings of Israel like David and Solomon are obvious choices for study in this area. But what about those who rose to prominence in pagan governments. Joseph, for instance, who was sold into slavery into Egypt by his brothers, eventually became the second in command under Pharaoh so that God could use him to save his people from starvation and preserve them as a nation. Joseph told his brothers who feared his revenge after the death of their father Israel:
"Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive" (Genesis 50:19,20).
Another example is Daniel. He started out as a captive when he was kidnapped from his noble family in Judah and was imported to Babylon. He ended up spending the rest of his 85-year life in exile. However, he made the most of his time there and exalted himself by his character and service. Daniel, by official royal appointment, became a statesman and served as a confidante to kings. This godly man also became a prophet to two world empires, the Babylonians (2:48) and the Medo-Persians (6:1,2).
These examples show us that not only are we to obey and respect the government, but some of us can also get involved and be a godly influence on our culture just like Joseph and Daniel did.
IV. There is a Place for Civil Disobedience
Now we come to the point where we can say that we don't blindly follow the government no matter what they do or say. Government was indeed ordained by God yet, like all institutions with humans in them, it can do some very ungodly things. There is a place for civil disobedience in the Christian life.
When a government advocates that we do something against the will of God, or doesn't allow us to do something that God commands us to do, then they are overstepping their authority and Scripture allows us to disobey. Of course, we may face the civil consequences of such disobedience, but we must do it anyway.
An example of this is found in Act 5. When Peter and the other Apostles were told not to preach any more in the name of Jesus Christ, here is what God's Word tells us:
"But Peter and the apostles answered, 'We must obey God rather than men" (5:29).
If we move back to the Old Testament, we see civil disobedience as well. In Daniel 6, we read of Daniel who was a godly leader under Darius the Mede at the time. The other officials got jealous of Daniel and wanted to destroy him so they asked the king to declare a statute that anyone who makes a petition to any god or man other than Darius for thirty days would be cast into the lion's den (6:6-9).
Here is Daniel's response:
"Now when Daniel knew that the document was signed, he entered his house (now in his roof chamber he had windows open toward Jerusalem); and he continued kneeling three times a day, praying and giving thanks before God, as he had been doing previously" (6:10).
Daniel was later thrown into the den of Lions and God kept him alive through it. He closed their mouths. However, the accusers of Daniel weren't as fortunate. They, their children and their wives were cast into the lion's den and Scripture tells us that the lions overpowered them and crushed their bones before they even reached the bottom of the den (6:24).
If we go even earlier in the book of Daniel, in chapter 3 we see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon because they refused to bow down to the king's image. All three were preserved from harm and when Nebuchadnezzar looks, he sees four men in the fiery furnace. The fourth, he said: "looked like a son of the gods" (3:25)
Even though in all of these examples, the people were preserved, that hasn't always been the case. Eleven of the twelve Apostles were later martyred. John was put in hot oil and later imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos. Paul was beheaded. It is for these and the thousands of martyrs throughout history that we must quote what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego said to the king before being placed in the furnace:
"O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up!" (3:16-18).
Like these three Hebrew children, we must stand up to any government that would make us disobey the God of the universe even if the Lord doesn't choose to save us from the consequences of that choice.
So, to conclude, what is the Christian's responsibility to the government that God has ordained? The very first thing is that we have to recognize and respect the leaders who are over us and obey the laws of our land unless they go against Scripture. They are there for our protection and to give us law and order (Romans 13:1-7).
Next, we have to pay our taxes so that the government has money to operate (Matt. 17:24-7; 22:21, Rom. 13:7). It is up to the government to use that responsibly. With the government of the United States, we can question their choices and, if necessary, replace those who would abuse their power. However, we must still pay taxes even if we don't agree with how they are being used.
Also, It is also our responsibility to pray for our leaders. God is ultimately in charge of all that happens and He can move the hearts of our governing officials to do what is right (1 Tim 2:1-3).
Further, for some who are politically-minded, we have seen that there is a basis in Scripture for getting involved directly in the governmental processes in all areas. We need more Christians in power over us. We desperately have to have those who aren't afraid to have God in control of their lives and decisions.
Finally, if we are citizens of the United States of America, we have a government of, by and for the people. That means that we are asked by our leaders to let them know what we want and who we want to govern us. Our leadership ultimately reflects the choices that we the people have made in all of the elections that we have had since we were old enough to vote. If we choose not to vote, we are giving up a right that very few people in history have had. That is the right to choose who will represent us.
Rather than constantly complaining about our leadership, we have to make sure that we do our part to have those over us reflect the Judeo-Christian values that have made our Country the great nation that it has become. Let us all praise God for our Government. And may we do all that we can to make it move toward the great ideals that our Founding Fathers instilled in it when it was created.
May we, as a nation, always remember the words of our great President Ronald Reagan:
"If we ever forget that we are one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under."
Let us forever make the Lord the center of our national life, and continue to pray that God will always bless the United States of America!
© 2018 Jeff Shirley